CNN: Inauguration P2P Stream a Success, Despite Backlash

octoshape-installSometimes it’s tough to be the winner. CNN attracted by far the largest online audience for its web stream of President Obama’s inauguration, delivering a total of 25 million streams on Jan. 20th. It did so by utilizing Octoshape’s P2P plug-in for Adobe’s Flash player, a fact that was widely known within the industry but only received very little coverage. Until yesterday, that is, when Windows Secrets suddenly came out blasting the network for “deceptive marketing,” alleging that CNN hijacked its users’ upload bandwidth. Others quickly jumped on the bandwagon, going so far as to suggest that “the most trusted name in news just stole your computer.”

I got in touch with CNN and Octoshape to get both sides of the story, which are, unsurprisingly, slightly different. Both companies reject the claim that they misled viewers. But Mike Wise, technical adviser of the R&D group of CNN parent company Turner Broadcasting System, had an even more important point to make: CNN used P2P, he told me, because it had to.

The inauguration is now seen as one of if not the largest live video event in the history of the Internet, and the folks at CNN believe that traditional CDNs simply weren’t up to the task. “Turner anticipated that the resulting stresses on the various CDNs and the Internet in general would make it extremely difficult ­ if not impossible to serve such an unprecedented audience without the use of P2P technologies,” Wise told me in an email.

To drive his point home, he also shared some previously unreleased numbers about CNN’s online audience during the event: The network’s web site saw more than 1.3 million simultaneous streams on Inauguration Day, and more than 650,000 of those simultaneous streams were delivered with the help of P2P.

So what about the issue of using viewers’ upstream bandwidth? Wise thinks that for most users, this is not longer such a big concern. “Companies like the BBC, Joost, AOL and many others have delivered content using P2P technologies for years,” he noted, adding, “P2P technologies are also used by millions of consumers daily for activities such as the transmission of files via instant messaging applications and Internet telephony.”

What remains is the allegation that CNN somehow tricked consumers into installing Octoshape’s P2P plug-in. Wise pointed out that the use of Octoshape has been optional for users of CNN since the network first started to use the technology in November of 2008, and Octoshape’s U.S. CEO Scott Brown added that the P2P functionality of the plug-in is clearly explained in the plug-ins EULA. Which is true, but who knows how many people took the time to read that document before Obama put his hand on the bible.

And there is another caveat: Adobe’s Flash player actually tells users that it “requires the Octoshape Grid Delivery enhancement” to play any live video from, which doesn’t exactly sound like a choice to me.

“We believe that the majority of the concerns are misunderstandings about how our software works,” said Brown. He might be right about that. The Windows Secrets article that started the whole brouhaha contains half-informed fear mongering, even suggesting that Octoshape is dangerous because, well, any media player puts your PC at risk of being hacked.

That might be true in case of unfixed vulnerabilities, but the same could be said about any other third-party application installed on your machine. Also, you won’t be able to watch online video without a media player, so this might be a trade-off worth taking. Never mind that Octoshape is in fact not a media player, but a delivery component.

Still, one has to wonder whether the whole uproar could have been prevented if CNN and Octoshape had just been a little more transparent about the technology. Making it clear that the Octoshape installation is in fact optional would have been a good place to start.